A Tale of Transformation: How the Land of Smiles is Boosting Optimism with a Digital Handshake on Innovation
Southeast Asia has taken the title for being one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, successfully attaining a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.92 trillion in 2018. Despite the discrepancies between developing and developed, Asean economies have shown great promise in their embracement of innovation, having cultivated some of the leading tech unicorns of the East such as Lazada, Grab, and Go-Jek. From innovations in e-commerce and fintech to blockchain, the tech landscape in the region has been only flourishing.
Over the past two years, Thailand has witnessed the ongoing transition from traditional to digital as the Land of Smiles slowly sheds its reliance on low-skilled labour industries to those that emphasise on specialised knowledge, research and development, and the use of emerging technologies. Championed by the nation’s Thailand 4.0 initiative, the shift towards innovation-based industries hopes to transform all aspects of the country’s economic and educational agenda, radically reshaping its culture of entrepreneurship.
A Class Act
There’s an oft-cited claim that creativity begins in the classroom, unearthed in supportive environments where students are proactively encouraged to think both critically and imaginatively. Cultivating a mindset that thrives on experimental and experiential learning fosters an inherent openness towards the unknown and the emergent. However, one must begin with a solid foundation.
In 2018, the Bangkok Post reported that “more than 50 per cent of Thai students fail in maths and 47 per cent in science... [with] one-third of Thailand’s 15-year-olds functionality illiterate.'' Educational reform is certainly a critical element of one of the agenda points of Thailand 4.0. Indeed, with the Thailand Education Partnership (TEP), the country hopes to cultivate an environment that champions education reform from the ground up, putting it to educational tech (edtech) startups to instigate the change. No longer only a matter of policy, edtech startups in the country have been looking at ways to rehabilitate the local education system, with three sandboxes now set-up across three provinces.
With time and with the right resources, curricular revisions can follow suit. In fact, last January, Chulalongkorn University (CU) and King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) announced that they would be introducing a double bachelor’s degree in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics engineering. The degree is the first-of-its-kind in the country, designed to prepare an incoming workforce for career pathways in the tech sector while foreign projects, on the other hand, begin to perceive the country in a far more favourable light as a haven for innovation. Its forward-thinking regulatory approach to technologies such as blockchain notwithstanding, Thailand’s universities, such as CU, have also partnered with leading projects in the space, in order to develop new curricula. Tezos, a smart contract platform, announced that it would be launching a new advanced computer science programme for the university, while giving students the opportunity to apply for internships supported by the project’s incubator programme, tZ ventures.
As Above, so Below
The race to innovate has catalysed the launch of initiatives, such as Digital Park Thailand, a strategic business hub for digital players, which is all set to become the largest of its kind in the region. With a US$160 million dollar government investment in the project, the hub is expected to showcase some of the country’s most promising startups. Meanwhile, the National Innovation Agency, a government-backed organisation that’s been spearheading the innovation agenda, is looking outside of Thailand as much as within it, actively partnering with nations such as Japan, Israel, and Finland, to name a few, in order to enable cross-border collaboration, burnishing the country’s image as a prime launching pad for global expansion. Indeed, such resources appear to have only spurred on experimenting further, with investors observing that blockchain has become one of Thailand’s most popular tech verticals.
Alongside these, benefits such as a new Four-year SMART visa programme aimed at attracting highly-skilled foreign talent in the tech sector and the Digital Economy Promotion Agency’s 8-13 year corporate tax exemption, Thailand has begun to provide a lucrative nesting ground for foreign projects seeking a presence in the region. Posing significant opportunities for knowledge-transfer, the rise in foreign investments and startups should prove to enrich the local ecosystem further, propelling the country forward as it advanced on the global stage.
Amidst its ongoing digital transformation, whether from the top-down or the ground-up, Thailand is uniquely positioned to see success. As it works to equip its coming workforce with the skills to further the local tech industry and supports today’s startups with a foundation of resources, the nation is certainly breeding a promising generation of innovators and entrepreneurs primed for the future.